What is Gesso?
Gesso is a product that is used by artists in preparing a canvas, board, or other surface for painting. It is primarily used in oil painting applications, but can also be used to prepare a surface for acrylic painting. I have even seen some interesting multi-media or collage projects that incorporated watercolor with a gesso base. I checked Wikipedia for more information, and this is what I found:
"Gesso" is the Italian word for chalk and is a powdered form of the mineral calcium carbonate used in art. Gesso was traditionally mixed with animal glue, usually rabbit-skin glue, to use as an absorbent primer coat for panel painting with tempera paints. It is a permanent and brilliant white substrate, as long as it is used on wood or masonite. This mixture is rather brittle and susceptible to cracking, thus making it unsuitable for priming canvas.
Modern acrylic "gesso" is actually a combination of calcium carbonate with an acrylic polymer medium and a pigment. It is sold premixed for both sizing and priming a canvas for painting. While it does contain calcium carbonate to increase the absorbency of the primer coat, Titanium dioxide or titanium white is often added as the whitening agent. This allows the "gesso" to remain flexible enough to use on canvas. High concentrations of calcium carbonate will cause the resulting film to dry to a brittle surface susceptible to cracking
Acrylic gesso can be colored, either commercially by replacing the titanium white with another pigment, such as carbon black, or by the artist directly, with the addition of an acrylic paint. Acrylic gesso can be odorous, due to the presence of ammonia and/or formaldehyde which are added in small amounts as preservatives against spoilage. Pre-gessoed canvases can be obtained commercially.
Acrylic gesso is a modern art material, and has a proven record as a contemporary primer for oil painting and acrylics. Many of the solvents used in oil painting, such as turpentine or odorless thinners, will leach some oil through a thin acrylic primer coat and damage the canvas underneath just like traditional hide glue sizing. However, sufficient coverage and penetration of an absorbent support is archivally acceptable. The non-absorbancy of the acrylic base is the big advantage contemporary gesso has over traditional hide-glue/flake white grounds. Hide glue will absorb moisture and shrink and expand with climate change, making an unstable support for paint films to sit on. Acrylic gesso is not a suitable substitute for classic chalk gesso in classic applications.
Hope this helps.
Judy Leasure, TDA